The Seattle Mariners broke training camp last week, but the shelling of their pitching staff still echoes across the Arizona desert.
Starters, relievers, young men and grandfathers alike got pounded. Evaluations, the manager complained, are impossible in Arizona. Breaking pitches don’t bite in the dry air. Balls travel farther. The parks of Arizona are bigger than those in Florida to compensate for the long ball, but that widens the gaps for more doubles and triples.
And as the hits just kept on a-comin’, we polled Norm Charlton for confirmation.
“You know why it’s tough to pitch here?” the Mariners closer shot back. “Because guys are living and dying with every outing.
“I don’t find pitching in Arizona any different than anywhere else, but for a lot of these guys, one bad outing and they’re going back to Triple-A. That’s a lot of pressure. Your wife doesn’t know where you’re going to be, the kids don’t know, you don’t know where to move your stuff.
“I’m pretty sure I’m going to Seattle unless I get traded or hurt, so there’s not a whole lot of pressure on me. If I give up a couple of runs, it doesn’t matter. But these other guys have to get people out, and so they try a little harder, rush it a little more, try to get out in front and then somebody crushes one. And if they weren’t trying harder, we wouldn’t want them.”
In other words, no alibis.
Norm Charlton may not be the perfect closer for a team with World Series ambitions, but right now he’s all the Mariners have. And he does seem to have the perfect approach.
Which, boiled down, is this: If you don’t make the right pitch, OK. Just don’t make it worse with an excuse.
Not that he’s even been tempted this spring.
In 10 Arizona outings, the 34-year-old lefthander was easily the Mariners’ most effective pitcher. Cactus League batters hit .196 against him. His earned-run average was 1.38. He faced 51 batters and walked just three.
Of course, in the late innings, the average uniform number of the opposing batters Charlton faced was probably 50-something. Some of the batters he set down won’t see big league pitching again without a satellite dish.
But then, those same ciphers were shooting up The Sheriff last March.
So we’re agreed: It’s a good sign, the best the Mariners saw in Arizona this side of Randy Johnson pitching without pain.
The M’s inability to repeat as American League West champions in 1996 has been, almost unanimously, blamed on the cast-of-thousands ineptitude of a pitching rotation that lost Johnson and Chris Bosio to injury and auditioned 13 other starters. As they struggled to last even five innings any given night, more pressure was heaped on an only marginally better bullpen. Together, Seattle pitchers combined to lose 32 games in which the M’s potent offense scored five or more runs.
And we’re not counting the ones Norm Charlton accepts losing all by himself.
Signed off the free-agent scrapheap in July 1995, Charlton stunned baseball by making the best of 14 of 15 save opportunities and, by extension, Seattle’s pennant hopes. But in 1996, he had the second-worst save percentage of any closer in baseball - 20 of 27.
And on the night the M’s were eliminated from contention, Charlton was the last man with the baseball.
“I was killing us for a while,” he admitted.
So Mariners manager Lou Piniella and vice president Woody Woodward aren’t hoping so much that there’s a new Sheriff in town come Tuesday night, but merely the old one.
For this much is fact: No A.L. champion of this decade has reigned without a 40-save closer - except for the 1992 Blue Jays, who got 34 from Tom Henke and another dozen from Duane Ward.
“I don’t think you can say we need 40 from Norm,” Woodward protested, “but we do need him to pitch with the consistency he didn’t show last year.”
Charlton, not surprisingly, is considerably harder on himself.
“I had the worst six weeks of baseball I’d ever had in my life,” he said, “and I had no clue how to pull myself out of it.”
It began on June 24 and stretched into August. Charlton lost five straight decisions during that span and recorded just a single save. His ERA jumped into the high fives, and finally he went to Piniella to request a demotion from the closer’s role.
“I told him to get me out of there because I was hurting the team,” Charlton said. “We had two guys, Mike Jackson and Bobby (Ayala), who were capable of closing, so taking me out of there wasn’t going to hurt a damn thing.
“I threw on the side and Lou got me into a couple of games in the seventh and eighth innings and finally things started working out. I can’t say I changed anything. But guys were making plays behind me, and when I’d make a bad pitch it somehow didn’t turn into a disaster.”
His ERA over his last 23 games was just 1.63. In the last month of the season, he saved six games and won another.
Shielded from the public during his midsummer slump was the darker side of Charlton’s purgatory. In July, Charlton had learned that after 11 years of trying, his wife Nancy was pregnant. A month later, he called home before a game in Detroit and got the news she had miscarried.
That night, he gave up two infield hits and then a rocket off the right-field facade in Tiger Stadium, and the M’s lost.
“I don’t get paid to make excuses,” he said. “They don’t care about my mental state. My job was to finish games and I wasn’t doing it.”
There are various barometers to a baseball team, but few as reliable as how the closer is going. If his psyche is battered, chances are the entire club’s psyche will be, too - and when Charlton was struggling, his teammates weren’t cheering “Norm!” when he trudged in from the bullpen.
“No, it’s not easy getting your butt kicked and then walking through the locker room the next day with your head held high,” he said. “But the people who work 9 to 5 have tough jobs, too. I had to fool people into thinking nothing was wrong. I didn’t want the rest of the staff thinking, ‘Oh-oh, it’s Norm.”’
In truth, he may have earned a little grace just because he’s Norm Charlton.
He is, in the classic tradition of closers and left-handers and Texans, a few degrees off center - a character who’s good for the ballclub even when he’s not going good. It was Charlton who, earlier this spring, microwaved a cup of Gatorade and swapped it for his urine sample - and then drank it down to the horror of the team physician.
It was Charlton who just last week listened to a reporter ask questions about drug usage in baseball, then started hurling stools into a nearby locker.
“Sorry,” he said sheepishly, doing his best Bluto Blutarsky. “Steroid rage.”
He was one of Piniella’s “Nasty Boys” during Cincinnati’s world championship run of 1990. The two were reunited in Seattle in 1993, but M’s management let Charlton go after the season when an elbow injury threatened his career - a lack of faith that still gnaws at him.
When he became available in 1995, Piniella watched Charlton throw just 10 pitches before recommending he be re-signed. And even when Charlton became Seattle’s closer, Piniella often used him for two - and once even three - innings.
M’s fans understood. For if Charlton’s in the game, that means Ayala isn’t.
Piniella vows to be more discriminating in his use of Charlton this season, but that depends on how many innings the M’s can get out of their starters, how effective left-handed set-up man Greg McCarthy is and if Ayala doesn’t self-destruct again.
“Look, I don’t care,” Charlton said. “I’m proud to be the closer and I think I’m a good one. But if Lou wants to use me in the seventh inning to get out of a jam and use somebody else to close, fine by me. If he needs me in the second inning, I’ll pitch then.”
When, then, is not the issue. But surely the Mariners do need him.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 Photos (2 Color)
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: The Norm Charlton file Age: 34 Height: 6-3 Weight: 205 Throws: Left Year Team W-L Sv G IP H R BB SO ERA 1988 Cincinnati 4-5 0 10 61 60 27 20 39 3.96 1989 Cincinnati 8-3 0 69 95 67 38 40 98 2.93 1990 Cincinnati 12-9 2 56 154 131 53 70 117 2.74 1991 Cincinnati 3-5 1 39 108 92 37 34 77 2.91 1992 Cincinnati 4-2 26 64 81 79 39 26 90 2.99 1993 Seattle 1-3 18 34 34 22 12 17 48 2.34 1994 Philadelphia injured, did not pitch 1995 Philadelphia 2-5 0 25 22 23 19 15 12 7.36 Seattle 2-1 14 30 47 23 12 16 58 1.51 1996 Seattle 4-7 20 70 75 68 37 38 73 4.04 Totals 40-40 81 397 680 565 274 276 612 3.12